Farmers are forced to grow it. Teachers are forced to pick it. And though everyone loses, the government still thinks cotton will fix its lopsided balance of trade.
There are considerable differences with regard to forced labor in Uzbekistan and Xinjiang, but there is an underlying corporate responsibility to not engage in human rights abuses.
The Cotton Campaign met with the government of Uzbekistan in Washington last week to discuss reform efforts to end forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest, which is currently underway. The Uzbek delegation, headed by Minister of Investments and Foreign Trade Sardor Umurzakov, presented its Roadmap to combat forced labor, which seeks to address the key concerns raised by the Cotton Campaign in its dialogue with the government.
The ITUC is calling for the release of Erlan Baltabay, a leader of the Independent Oil and Energy Workers’ Union in Kazakhstan, who has been returned to prison to serve a new 5-month term. Baltabay was released from prison in August, following a special decree by Kazakhstan’s President, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, that he be released on humanitarian grounds.
Under the blazing sun in a cloudless blue sky, green foliage droops with unfurling white cotton bolls. In the Fergana Valley in the heart of Central Asia, in the shadow of snow-dusted mountains, the cotton is ripe for picking. If the Uzbek authorities have their way, it will become t-shirts and skirts, to be sold around the world. Uzbekistan, already the world’s seventh-biggest producer of cotton, wants to become a force in the garment industry, too, on a par with the likes of Bangladesh, China and Vietnam.
The Cotton Campaign calls on the Uzbek government to drop criminal charges against Mahmud Rajab, a poet, journalist, and human rights defender, whose trial on contraband charges is set to begin Thursday. The government should also stop interfering with independent reporting on human rights issues, including forced labor.
In spite its rhetoric on reform, Uzbekistan is failing to overcome its habit of resorting to authoritarian practices when silencing critics. Highly secretive closed-door trials remain a familiar feature, and relatives of defendants can still expect to be threatened by security services operatives.
At least two secondary schools in Turkmenabat are easing up on compulsory participation in the annual cotton campaign, according to teachers at the schools. The teachers used to have to pay three times a week or more to hire cotton pickers, but this season they have to hand over money only once a week. The weekend routine remains the same, though: either the teachers go to pick cotton themselves two Sundays a month, or they give money to hire someone else. Overall teachers shell out between 60 and 90 manats a month ($3.3-5)
Following a wave of antigovernment protests across Kazakhstan earlier this month, activists from the volatile city of Zhanaozen say authorities are taking extraordinary measures to prevent them from attending another rally.
Malokhat Eshankulova, an independent journalist from Uzbekistan, was unable to fly to Warsaw, where the OSCE Human Rights Conference began today.